Life Imitates Hollywood in a $136 Million Jewelry Heist

The Pink Panther, from left: Peter Sellers, David Niven, 1963 Photograph by Everett Collection

Yesterday morning, at the Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes, a man wearing a cap and bandanna and brandishing an automatic pistol walked into a ground-floor exhibition room and walked out with a suitcase full of roughly $136 million in diamonds and jewels. The goods, owned by Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, were being watched by private guards, but they were apparently unarmed. Initial reports valued the stolen booty at $53 million, but a French state prosecutor on Monday more than doubled the figure. (In a headline-friendly coincidence, the French Riviera hotel is also the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 stolen-jewels caper, To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.)

Although there are no suspects yet, the timing suggests the possible involvement of Milan Poparic, a 34-year-old Bosnian who escaped from a Swiss prison last Thursday and is a member of the “Pink Panther” ring of jewelry thieves. Poparic’s jailbreak was cinematic: His accomplices rammed the front gate of the prison with their vehicles and opened fire on the guards while the jewel thief made a break for it.

The Pink Panthers got their name from a 1993 jewelry heist in London, in which they hid $769,000 worth of diamonds in a jar of face cream, a tactic used in the 1963 Pink Panther comedy starring Peter Sellers. According to an overview of the gang by Interpol, “This loosely aligned network of criminals has hundreds of members and is believed to have carried out jewellery robberies worth in excess of €300 million since 1999…. The Pink Panthers’ methods are daring and quick.” (No word yet on who’ll be heading the investigation, but we’re crossing our fingers that his last name is Clouseau.)

Just a few weeks ago, we reported on the growing trend of jewel thievery, both overseas and in the U.S. A vice president at Tiffany made off with about $1.3 million in jewelry during her two years with the company. (On Friday she pled guilty in a Manhattan courtroom to the charges of theft.) And during the Cannes Film Festival in May, two separate hotel robberies resulted in the disappearance of more than $4 million worth in jewels and diamonds. According to Scott Selby, co-author of Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, Cannes may be a recurring target for many reasons. “The security [at luxury hotels in Cannes] is nothing compared to a place like Antwerp (in Belgium) that deals with diamonds every day,” he says. “An exhibit set up in a hotel is a lot easier to rob than a vault in a secure diamond trading area.” It also helps, Selby adds, that none of the recent jewel robberies in the area have resulted in an arrest. Maybe Inspector Clouseau is on the case after all.

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